New Gilded Age Urbanism–Updated

Apparently the Koch Brothers have been threatening Republican state legislators in Michigan with well-financed primary opponents if they vote for a deal to fund part of Detroit’s pension obligations to its retired city workers as a condition of getting the city out of bankruptcy and state receivership (h/t Charlie Pierce).

This really should be an object lesson for one key point. The legacy of the New Federalism and the devolution of decisionmaking outward from Washington has not been aimed at bringing government closer to the people, except in the cases of affluent residents of privileged suburbs who need very little in the way of government except to pave them more roads and lock up anyone who looks enviously at their stuff. What we have is a strategic shift of power to the states. The obvious red flag when talking about decisions made at the state level comes from the history of desegregation and civil rights, but the more dire historical precedent for people living in urban areas is the nineteenth century. We’re facing a return to the age when the state houses control what happens in local communities, and wealthy special interests control what happens in the state houses. If that means defeating mass transit and forcing a city to welsh on its obligations to its own citizens so be it.

Despite the fantasies spun by libertarian chop shops like Cato, the public is frequently less aware of what’s happening in their state houses than they are of what’s happening in Washington, and the free market dynamics of the media industry aren’t helping–when a major media corporation decides to close its bureau in a capital where decisions are made that affect 38 million people (1 in 8 Americans!), what does that bode for the rest of the country?

People should think about this stuff before they start talking about mayors saving the world.

Update: David Firestone (for the NYT) nails this as “kicking Detroit while it’s down.” If that explanation is too simplistic for you, he elaborates using the Demos study as evidence:

“Detroit may have mismanaged finances, but the state’s cuts to revenue sharing doomed the city. One option would have been for the state to restore revenue sharing to previous levels which would have been worth nearly $200 million to Detroit. The state could have afforded to do this if it had not cut business and income taxes in 2000, and then given business another $1.8-billion tax break in 2011.”

Under the circumstances, the proposed state contribution on behalf of vulnerable pensioners is a modest way to make up for Lansing’s decades of abandonment. But it’s too much for the Kochs to stomach. They apparently want city workers and retirees to publicly suffer for the sin of having been union members.

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